Take a computer science course from Harvard, study circuits with a pair of MIT professors or master machine learning in a Stanford University class, all from a laptop in Minneapolis. Tuition? Free.
These so-called MOOCs, or "massive open online courses," are being offered by an ever-growing number of the country's most elite universities. As they proliferate, they are forcing traditional colleges to confront tricky questions about their own cost and credits.
Champions of the new format, which often includes slickly produced videos, quizzes and peer-graded homework, believe it could transform higher education — giving millions of front-row seats to some of the strongest professors and helping bend tuition's rising trajectory.
No Minnesota college has created a MOOC. Yet. Last Thursday, University of Minnesota faculty members were again invited to come up with course ideas. "We want to support that," provost Karen Hanson told the faculty senate. "The ground is shifting very quickly in these areas."
But some scholars warn against hyping these online courses as higher education's salvation before studying whether they're working.
"MOOCs have been around for a long time. They're called books," said U chemistry Prof. Christopher Cramer. "The model removes an instructor from the equation … so what's left is just content. It may be really well-designed content, if you're willing to spend the money, but it's just content."
Colleges ignore the wave at their own risk, some leaders say.
"If we aren't players, we could get sidelined," said Larry Goodwin, president of the College of St. Scholastica. The Duluth college recently announced it would award credit for some MOOCs as part of its new CSS Complete program.
Credit could be key to the effect massive courses might have on higher education.
Harvard is not offering its MOOC-takers credit toward a Harvard degree. Yet many colleges are weighing whether they'll grant their own academic credit for such courses. Recently, one of the biggest players in the MOOC market, a company called Coursera, announced that the American Council on Education (ACE) would assess a handful of its courses and could recommend colleges accept them for credit.
That's big, said Gary Langer, executive director of Minnesota Learning Commons. "If ACE certifies these things, it puts the onus on the institutions to say, 'Do we break away from ACE on this?'"
Minnesota felt similar pressure recently when Coursera posted a warning on its website that the state's Office of Higher Education had notified it that none of the universities offering classes through Coursera was authorized to do so in Minnesota.
The online blowback was fierce, and Larry Pogemiller, the office's director, quickly regrouped. Pogemiller said that a state law requires institutions to register with the state but that the office did not intend to discourage Minnesotans from taking the free courses. Now, both he and Andrew Ng, Coursera's co-founder, say the state could lead the nation in crafting a modern statute.
"I think we should not just fear it and not just embrace it either," Pogemiller said. "We should be thoughtful about it."
What's it worth?
Bev Bachel didn't expect much. The Minneapolis writer and consultant figured that MOOCs might be "equivalent to the webinars offered for free." But three courses in, she's impressed by the quality of the lectures, the immediacy of the feedback and the interaction among fellow students, who review one another's papers and chat online. She also likes the flexibility.
"I got up at 5 this morning and logged in," she said. "I partly watched the videos and partly did my morning yoga."
Bachel, who earned an English degree from Drake University in Iowa, is figuring out how she will market her MOOCs. Should she put them on LinkedIn? Mention them in proposals?
"I do think that they demonstrate that I'm self-motivated," she said, "that I'm abreast of current information and trends."
Many colleges give credit for the work or learning a student does before arriving on campus. High school students take advanced placement, or AP, courses. Veterans get credit for military training.
The College of St. Scholastica's new degree-completion program, aimed at adults in Duluth and the Twin Cities, allows students to transfer up to 96 credits from elsewhere. Credit for completed MOOCs is not automatic: The courses must contribute to a portfolio or be assessed in another way, Goodwin said.
"You always hope you get students as a result of a venture like this," Goodwin said. "But that's not our primary reason for doing it. We are taking seriously the possibility that we could serve some students more effectively and efficiently."
Many adult students cannot afford the Catholic college's $30,208 annual price tag, he acknowledged. St. Scholastic is marketing CSS Complete, and the possibility of including MOOCs, as "a flexible, high-touch and affordable path."
A big concern for schools such as the U is whether the student really took the class. The council assessing five to 10 of Coursera's more than 200 courses shares that worry.
The "obvious solution" would have been testing centers, said Ng, an associate professor on leave from Stanford University. But some students live far from such centers. So Coursera is proposing using a web camera, watched by a proctor who can ask a student to show an ID and give them a scan of the room.
"I've seen a lot of demos, and they're actually pretty secure," Ng said.
So far, the massive courses cover advanced subjects such as analytical chemistry and "Securing Digital Democracy." But some hope the format might suit algebra, too.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pumped millions into starting and studying MOOCs, recently awarded nine grants to test the effectiveness of remedial and introductory courses, like those often required of community college students.
Langer said that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is "waiting to see" whether such courses work for less-prepared students who often need one-on-one support — the very thing MOOCs lack.
"Would these students really be able to handle the rigor and self-discipline that's required for such a course?" Langer said. "Because we don't need more dropouts."
'The bar is pretty high'
Massive courses have proved to be good marketing for both the universities and the professors.
"Frankly, we have superb faculty … and people are interested in hearing from them," the U's Hanson said. But the public university has limited resources, and MOOCs are pricey to produce, she said. "The bar is pretty high."
Cramer, in his half-time administrative role driving digital teaching methods, put out a call for MOOC proposals last month. A dozen faculty members responded. This week, Cramer and Hanson will nail down next steps, he said.
Despite his disbelief that MOOCs will remake higher education, and his propensity to joke about what MOOC stands for (among his suggestions is "My Outrageous Optimistic Conceit") Cramer himself is playing with the idea of creating one.
"It's a little up in the air," he said. "If I weren't actually teaching a real course next semester, I would be much more committed."